EKN Trackside: Rotax Challenge of the Americas – Sonoma – Sunday Report
Team USA drivers added following thrilling days of competition
You couldn’t ask for much more in terms of an exciting season finale for the Rotax Challenge of the Americas at Sonoma Raceway. With the championship titles on the line, and tickets to the Rotax Grand Finals awaiting the new members of Team USA, the excitement and tension in the paddock was palpable. The teams had no doubt gone through the calculations on what needed to happen for the points races to go their way, and the drivers were all prepped with their race strategies. Regardless of the math exercises that were done overnight, there is one approach that’s always positive…‘Go out and win, and the rest will take care of itself’. Four drivers heeded that advice and secured championships on the strength of Sunday race wins, while the others enjoyed the fruits of their earlier successes to claim their crowns. After racing through five main events, at three different tracks, it all came down to one day…Championship Sunday in Sonoma.
Holeshot Drive Systems Senior Max
The final round of action Sunday set up for one of the most dramatic days in the Challenge history. Three drivers entered the day with a shot at the title, with every position and point vitally important. Qualifying began with two rookies stars stealing the spotlight, as Rolison Performance Group drivers Luke Selliken and Blaine Rocha earned the top two position in the timed session. Their RPG/Kosmic teammate and championship contender Phillip Arscott was third, with veteran Matt Johnson (FA Kart) and Jake Craig (Tony Kart) completing the fast five.
Selliken went wire-to-wire for his first ever Prefinal win, continuing the day of first for the young driver. Pressure early from Arscott was the only challenge, as the defending Senior champion tried for the lead and failed, dropping outside the top-five. The veteran fought back, inching his way toward Selliken, but ran out of time in the end and would settle for the second position. Craig drove to third, with Pagano driving up to fourth after contact early involving Rocha and Joey Wimsett (CRG) allowed him to move forward. Utah driver McKay Snow (Kosmic) completed the top-five.
The scenario entering the Final was one for the storybooks. Three different drivers, racing for three different positions on-track, all with a shot at the title. Arscott put himself in the best position, the lead. Knowing victory was the best chance, he took the lead on lap seven and ran away. He nearly clocked off the fast lap of the race, which was a vital five points depending on the position of Craig and Pagano. Craig fought with Selliken for the runner-up spot, and needed that position to earn more points then Arscott to steal the title. Near the halfway point, Rocha stole the fast lap honors, and the five bonus points, putting the pressure on both Arscott and Craig to rip one down.
As the race progressed, Craig settled into third, and thus attention turned to Pagano who needed to finish sixth or better for the title. He fought with Rocha and Snow early on, with Rocha getting shuffled back and gave Pagano the sixth spot by at least two seconds. That was until the charging veteran Johnson, who never quit after getting spun around at the opening corner from contact with Andrew Weiner (ART GP). Running times similar to that of the leaders, Johnson fought his way forward lap after lap, and eventually reached Pagano on the final two laps. An inside move on Pagano opening up the final lap move Johnson to sixth, and dropped the championship contender back to seventh. Pagano was unable to fight back, and saw the title slip from his hands.
At the checkered, it was Arscott with the victory over Selliken and Craig, as Wimsett – the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award winner – and Snow earned their first top-five finish of the series. Championship wise, Arscott earned his second straight Senior title by just two points over Craig, with Pagano back by only three – making it the closest finish in Challenge history.
Rolison Performance Group Junior Max
It was a two-second difference in times from yesterday to Sunday in qualifying, thanks to a rubber-down track. The quickest early was Sting Ray Robb (Tony Kart) as the Junior rookie dipped into the 51-second bracket. He remained at the top until championship contender Austin Versteeg (Kosmic) bettered his time. The driver dove onto pit lane, all looking for more speed. Both Versteeg and Robb found more as the session came to a close. Versteeg, running all alone on the course, posted a 51.584-second lap, earning five very important points in toward the standings. Robb went quicker, but was still two tenths off. Kyle Wick (Kosmic) was third, with local drivers Toni Breidinger (Kosmic) and Callum Smith completing the fast five.
Nothing is set in stone yet, either for the championship or the race win. Versteeg led the field to the green flag, with a host of drivers behind him. Christian Brooks (Tony Kart), who qualified 11th, found himself into the top five during the first half of the race. By lap six, he was around Versteeg for the lead. That triggered a lot of movement in the remaining 10 laps. Robb took a turn at the point before Brooks retook the spot until the last lap. With a move inside at turn one, Robb stole the lead. It was the winning move, as he held on to the checkered flag for the win. Two ART GP drivers were on the charge throughout the race, as Enzo Prevost came 12th on the grid to end up third while Phillippe Denes had troubles in qualifying to knife his way to eight from the tail of the field. Wick and Versteeg completed the top-five.
Versteeg entered the Final, knowing he needed to win, and see where the points ended up after the results. Robb led the early going of the feature, with Brooks second, Wick, Versteeg and Prevost making up the lead pack. Versteeg moved up the order early and was into the lead by lap eight. Denes followed him through, and helped to push Robb back to third. Two laps later, Denes took over the top spot from Versteeg, as Prevost ran down the top two to make it three drivers fighting for the lead. They ran nose to tail, until Denes went wide on the exit of the last corner on lap 14. The lead was handed to Versteeg, with Prevost now into second. Versteeg held a larger lead then he had all race, but the two ART GP drivers drove back leader.
Knowing a win was what he needed, the Rolison Performance Group pilot held off the final charges of Prevost and Denes for his third victory of the season. Brooks fought to a fourth place finish with Michael Avasino (FA Kart) fifth. During tech inspection, Denes was removed from the results due to an improper spark plug boot, thus moving Brooks to the third step of the podium for his sixth of the series. The absence of the fast lap points, going to Nick Brueckner (Birel) by just a few hundredths, put Brooks three points out of the championship, handing the championship and Rotax Grand Finals ticket to Versteeg. Wick, who finished ninth, ended the title chase in the third position. Horatio Fitz-Simon (Tony Kart) was the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award winner, moving up to 13th from last.
Energy Corse America DD2/CRG-USA DD2 Masters
It has been anyone’s for the taking in DD2 all season, with Gavin Reichelt stepping up the majority of the time. His three wins is followed by one each for Sabré Cook and yesterday’s winner Andy Lee. Christian Bird jumped into the fun in Phoenix, and is putting in his bid for a victory. Bird (CRG) was the only driver to dip below the 50-second mark, posting a 49.773-second lap. Lee (CRG) was second in the order with Cook (CRG) third. Reichelt presented himself to the grid late, and was not allowed on the session, with the Prefinal as his first on-track session of the day after skipping warm-up. DD2 Masters point leader Alan Rudolph (CRG) returned to Sonoma after spending the day in Phoenix for a work event, and was fourth overall on the time sheet after posting the provisional fast time. He will have a front row seat to the battle in DD2, with Saturday’s Masters winner Mike Urban (CRG) second in class.
The Prefinal was another epic battle including the DD2 field, as Cook, Lee and Reichelt fought again for another race win. Bird led the way on the opening circuit, but was dropped back to fourth quickly. Both Cook and Reichelt took their turn at the point, with Reichelt scoring the win by a few inches over Cook. Lee was close behind with Bird in fourth. Rudolph stayed within reach of the DD2 drivers, earning another 10 points toward his championship as Urban ran second in Masters.
One last great show was put on by the DD2 field with Sunday’s Final, with Cook earning her second series victory. The top four were nose to tail the entire time, jostling for position with every circuit. Reichelt led early, with Cook taking over the lead on lap four. They went back and forth for the lead over the next few laps, until Bird began to show strength and move himself forward. Lee responded with his own spurt, and all four were at it again. Lap 22 was the turning point, as Cook led with the remaining three going three wide for second in turn six. Lee got the bad end of the deal, spinning on the exit and out of the chase. This allowed Cook enough room to cruise to the win, as Reichelt edged out Bird for second. Rudolph followed the group the entire time, picking up his fifth victory of the season and earning the DD2 Masters ticket to the Rotax Grand Finals. Reichelt, who had the provisional championship in hand going into today, made it through the event as the rookie DD2 driver will represent Team USA at the ‘Olympics of Karting’.
Nash Motorsportz Masters Max
Tyler Brooks (Tony Kart) ended the perfect weekend for point leader Donald Durbin (Birel), securing the pole position. After engine trouble all day that slowed his pace, the 2013 double race-winner picked up speed Sunday morning. His 52.425-second lap was over two tenths faster, stealing five points from the championship contenders. Stephan Gaudreau moved up to third late aboard his Aluminos entry, dropping title chasers Ken Maxfield (Arrow) and Brian Phillipsen (Tony Kart) to fourth and fifth.
The Prefinal was set up to be a good battle, putting Durbin against Brooks. They went back and forth until lap 10 when Brooks got sideways through the tic-tac-toe section. The mishap dropped him back to fourth, and put Durbin out front. His pace however was not the same, as Gaudreau and Maxfield closed in and kept on the pressure. Gaudreau, a winner at last weekend’s RLOKC event, went back and forth with the point leader. Durbin made a last lap pass in turn six to secure the win over Gaudreau. Maxfield was a close third with Brooks in fourth and John Breidinger (FA Kart) up to fourth after a DNF from Phillipsen.
Four drivers started out the 25-lap battle, gunning for the final victory of the Challenge. Durbin, Maxfield, Gaudreau, and Brooks filled out the lead group, and began shuffling for position early. Maxfield took his turn at the point, and led for five laps until Durbin regained the spot. One circuit later, Maxfield and Gaudreau made their way past Durbin for position, with Gaudreau moving into the lead for the first time. Maxfield eventually dropped back and lost the group. The shuffling continued on with Brooks into the top spot with Durbin trailing. The three-time leader could not find a way around, and Brooks held on for the victory. Durbin, placing second, locked up the series championship for his second straight. Gaudreau was third, but was removed from the results for an airbox issue. Maxfield was across the line fourth until a modified airbox was discovered in the tech barn. Phillipsen advanced to the third step of the podium, earning the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award, and second in the standings with Maxfield third. Fisher was classified fourth in the race, with Peck fifth.
BBR Karting Mini Max
Trey Brown has been winning at the local and regional level all year, but not yet at the Challenge. The Tony Kart driver began Sunday’s final round of action off right, posting the fast lap in qualifying. His 55.918-second lap was quickest of the 17 drivers, with local driver Tomas Mejia (Top Kart) off by 59 thousandths. Mexican driver Sebastian Alvarez (CRG) was not far off in third, with Saturday top qualifier Conner Wick (Kosmic) and Payton Durrant (Birel) completed the fast five.
A restart was needed for the Prefinal, with six drivers making up the lead group. Brown showed the way but was hounded by Alvarez for much of the 13 lap race. Wick had other ides, making a move from third to first with just a few circuits remaining. The attempt did not stick, as Brown assumed the point with Alvarez dropping to third. The top two pulled away as Brown scored the win over Wick. Alvarez went off on the last lap, exiting turn seven. He finished ninth in the order as Jacob Blue Hudson (Energy) crossed the line third, ahead of Filip Niemkiewicz (AM Kart) and Mejia. Following tech, Hudson was removed from the results for an engine issue, moving everyone behind him up one position.
The Final came down to three drivers, Brown, Niemkiewicz, and Mejia. Wick was within the leaders until he went off on lap three, with other contenders like Hudson and Tavella involved in a wreck. No one could match the pace set by Mejia during the second half of the race. Taking over the lead from Brown on lap 11, the local driver drove away to his first ever Challenge victory. Niemkiewicz edged out Brown for the runner-up step of the podium, with Marco Kacic (CRG) fourth and Hannah Greenemeier (Arrow) her first top-five of the series. The #GoRotax Hard Charger Award went to Durrant once again, after cutting the track at the start of the Prefinal put him to the tail of the field in the main event, working his way up to a sixth place performance.
Black Flag Racing Micro Max
The track was much quicker Sunday morning compared to Saturday’s session, with eight drivers able to dip below the one-minute mark. Championship leader Jak Crawford (Birel) earned his third pole position of the series, adding five more points to his advantage with a 59.110-second lap. Grant Langon (Aluminos) led for much of the session, but settled for the second spot, about two tenths off. Tait Blum (Kosmic) was third with Josh Pierson (Tony Kart) and Diego LaRoque (CRG) making up the fast five.
The 10-lap Prefinal nearly saw Crawford slip back as he’s done in the past, but it would not be as the five-time race winner scored the win. Leading the field to the green flag, he was dropped back to third behind Blum and LaRoque on lap two. The three were out front away from the field, but were reeled in by a large second group. This gave Crawford the chance to strike back, as he fought his way to the lead once again. Crawford held off Blum at the line for the win by 76 thousandths of a second. Max Wright (Energy) came from 11th to third, with Sebastian Davis (Tony Kart) and LaRoque making up the top-five.
Crawford signed, sealed and delivered the perfect end to his perfect main event streak, scoring the sixth Final victory in dominant fashion. The race began with a restart, after Davis entered the track without the permission of the officials for showing up late to the grid. One the race resumed, Crawford pulled away quickly and early. Wright moved to second on the opening lap, and stuck with the five-time winner early on, but Crawford laid down fast lap after fast lap to pull away. At the line, the margin of victory was six seconds as the Texan earned his sixth straight main event win and the championship. Wright was second, but ended up having an issue in tech with the clutch, which removed him from the results and off the championship podium. The great fight for third, which later would be the runner-up position, was won by Cole Keith Cotham (Birel). The group was shuffled up with a wreck, including at least four drivers with two laps to go. Cotham edged out Langon by inches at the line for the spot, along with earning the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award of a free set of Mojo tires presented by the MAXSpeed Group. Austin Torgerson (KGB) was fourth in the final order with Blum finishing fifth. Davis and Arndt completed the championship podium.